On a New Track: Malaysian Prime Minister Halts Construction of Chinese Backed Railway Projects

The construction of 1,100 miles of railway track has been put on hold under the pretext of anti- corruption policies by second term Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad. The problems with the construction of the railway, a network that would link Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and eventually the rest of the East Asian continent, seem to relate to the significant amount of Chinese funding for the project. China is committing $40 billion to its Malaysian railway project and is sending its personnel to oversee the construction of the railways. The project is a local component of Xi Jinping’s global One Belt One Road initiative.

The Chinese Belt and Road initiative depends heavily on Malaysian territorial and political cooperation. Image courtesy of Lommes via Wikimedia, © 2017, some rights reserved.

China’s One Belt One Road project, a trillion-dollar commitment, started in 2013 with the objective of uniting China economically and culturally with the rest of the global community. In practical terms, China plans on spreading its influence using railway- based infrastructure spanning over 71 countries. The plan is largely seen as a security and economic manoeuvre to reduce China’s heavy economic reliance on the South China Sea, a trade bubble that is contested by most global powers. A move toward a land-based trade network allows China to culturally and economically expand with significantly less opposition from major rivals like the USA. Malaysia’s railway shutdown has the potential to significantly affect China’s goals for the project.

So far, Malaysia has halted 668 kilometres of track used within China’s proposed trade network. This railway segment specifically is vital to China because it would eventually link Singapore to Kuala Lumpur; one step closer to connecting Singapore with China. Singapore is a key security interest for China because Singapore and the U.S. Navy, China’s western competitor, conduct military joint military exercises, and the U.S. stations many of its vessels responsible for policing the South China in Singapore’s ports. From an economic standpoint, Singapore is one of the most developed Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states. In 2017, China, contributed 19 million to ASEAN construction projects. ASEAN is heavily influenced by Chinese economic policy, so losing Singapore on the One Belt One Road Initiative will be a major setback.

In addition to curbing China’s influence over the East Asian community, the stoppage of construction was influenced by domestic concerns within Malaysia. The railway projects, started by former Prime Minister Najib Razak have, in the eyes of Prime Minister Mohamad, been a significant factor in Malaysia’s $250 billion national debt. Looking forward, Mohamad plans on continuing the construction of the railway, under new (likely Malaysian rather than Chinese) management and investment. During the closures, the Malaysian government has not forgotten about their citizens who rely on public transportation (A staggering 60% of Malaysian citizens use public transport!). Two new railway lines are under construction, including one that will link Singapore to the south of Malaysia. Ultimately, though, it remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be of the Malaysian government’s political stand against Chinese influence, an issue with the potential to cause tensions far beyond southeast Asia.

 

Banner Image: Image courtesy of Wikimedia, © 2018, some rights reserved.

 

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